Connecting to what matters | Interlake grads closing social media, generational gap for families around the world

(left to right) Ajay Mehta, Wesley Zhao and Henry Liu are hoping FamilyLeaf can bring a new focus to social media.  - Courtesy photo
(left to right) Ajay Mehta, Wesley Zhao and Henry Liu are hoping FamilyLeaf can bring a new focus to social media.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

When Wesley Zhao graduated from Interlake High School in 2010, set to continue his education at the University of Pennsylvania, his parents couldn't have been happier. Two years later, when he informed them he was thinking of leaving the university's prestigious Wharton School of Business, their emotions were slightly different.

"It took awhile to convince them," Zhao said. "They definitely didn't like it at first."

But Zhao wasn't just taking a hiatus from college, he was taking an opportunity to change the way people use social media and connect with family members around the world.

After working on a host of other web products that dealt with everything from exchanging unused gift cards to locating Facebook friends on a real-time map, Zhao and childhood friend Ajay Mehta, now working from California's Silicon Valley, decided they wanted to solve a more familiar problem that only promises to grow as social media proliferates.

While Facebook has created the larger social media network, it also has the unintended consequence of giving all of one's connections equal access to their photographs and updates. For younger users, the idea of parents encroaching on their interactions with friends is a major deterrent. Meanwhile, parents and grandparents are left unable to connect with the next generation without feeling as though they are committing unwanted "Facebook stalking."

"There is no great way to really connect with family," Zhao said. "We realized it is this huge problem that a lot of people have."

For Zhao and Mehta, the solution was simple: create a new social network focused on bringing families, and only families, together.

After securing funding through well-known startup support Y Combinator, which helped fund Weebly, Dropbox and Reddit among others, the two launched FamilyLeaf. Unlike Facebook, which streamlined the process of connecting people on a broad scale, FamilyLeaf brings social networking down to its most basic level. After launching the site on TechCrunch in March and operating in private beta since, FamilyLeaf is now open to anyone searching for a more private social connection to long-distance family members.

Zhao said all of his extended family lives in China and Mehta has aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins in countries around the world. With FamilyLeaf they can receive updates called "tidbits" and seamlessly share photos to the site by email, a more familiar mode for the less computer-savvy. The network gives each family a page where photos and updates from all members are shared, organizes profiles of family members and acts as a gathering place.

"Family is really important, but sometimes it takes a push to get people to remember that," Zhao said. "Everyone always gets to hear about the big things - weddings, babies being born, graduations - but the little things you miss out on are really important too."

FamilyLeaf is keeping the figures on users and traffic close to the vest with similar products such as Family Crossings and My Heritage popping up around the web. But feedback from the beta phase was generally positive and Zhao said many of FamilyLeaf's competitors don't share their development philosophy or personal connection to the product.

"We were talking to families all around the world," said Mary Yap, a childhood friend of Zhao and Mehta and their first hire. "We kept hearing their stories about how hard it is to stay in contact across the world. One family said sharing photos helped their father remember some of what he had lost."

Yap said her parents had a split reaction when she broke the news of leaving school at the University of Chicago. Her father, a small business owner himself, was immediately supportive of the idea and the ingenuity behind it. Her mother took a few months to come around, but she eventually gave Yap at least a year to explore the project, since she skipped a grade during school.

"When she heard how passionate I was about connecting families, she was more okay with it," Yap said. "I did promise her I would finish my degree."

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